We scheduled this article to coincide with the climactic rounds of the women’s World Cup, on the perfectly reasonable assumption that American soccer fans would be at fever pitch by now, rooting for another US title.
So much for that rationale. But in spite of the USWNT’s early knockout, we’re still excited about the other women’s national team that will soon be in action: the US Amputee Soccer Women’s Team, which travels to Poland next month for its first-ever international match. The game will take place September 15 in Warsaw, and it will be followed by a six-nation tournament (the Amp Futbol Cup) featuring the US national (co-ed) team.
“Amputee soccer is one of the most commonly played disability sports in the world,” says Nico Calabria, the US national team’s captain. It’s also one of the fastest growing—the World Amputee Football Federation (WAFF) now boasts 55 member nations on five continents, nearly tripling its size within the last three years. Women’s amputee soccer is rapidly growing, too: Plans are in the works for the first-ever Women’s Amputee Football World Cup to take place in 2024.
Best of all, amputee soccer is gaining popularity at the recreational level within the United States, attracting new players of all ability levels. “Our biggest goal has been to build regional programs so that anyone who wants to try the sport has an opportunity to do so in an area near them,” says Calabria, amputee soccer’s most prominent American advocate. The US Amputee Soccer Association (usampsoccer.org) lists regional teams in eight states, and the game is popping up at adaptive sports organizations throughout the country. “We’re just trying to get people involved in playing, laughing, and having fun,” Calabria says. “And those types of opportunities are definitely growing right now.”
We spoke not long ago with Calabria, women’s amputee soccer coach Emily Maxwell, and women’s national team member Katie Bondy about the birth of the US women’s team, the upcoming matches in Poland, and the overall growth of amputee soccer. The transcript is edited for length, clarity, and coherence.
To learn more about amputee soccer and find a regional team near you, visit usampsoccer.org. And if you’re willing and able to help the US teams cover expenses for their upcoming trip to Warsaw, make a contribution at usampsoccer.networkforgood.com.
Katie, how did you get involved in amputee soccer and get connected with the women’s national team?
KATIE: I became an amputee in May 2022. In Ohio, where I live, there’s a program called Adaptive Sports Connection, and they started promoting amputee soccer last year. During my rehab, my physical therapist said, “Why don’t you try this?” And my attitude has always been, “I can’t say I don’t like something if I don’t try it at least once.”
It almost sounds like you expected not to like it. Were you skeptical?
KATIE: I saw they were playing on forearm crutches, which I had never used. And I’ve been in [leg] braces my whole life, so trying to run has always been very difficult. It was very uncomfortable and caused a lot of pain. Once I learned how to use the forearm crutches, it really gave me freedom to move. I’m fast with forearm crutches, and I’ve never had that experience of being fast. So now I love using them. I’m actually using the forearm crutches around my house. Finding freedom of movement is something I think a lot of people take for granted. And now that I have it, it’s just so much easier get around and do things.
How did you end up getting connected with the women’s national team?
KATIE: Adaptive Sports Connection posted some video on Facebook that showed me playing soccer. And then a few days later, one of the employees at Adaptive Sports Connection messaged me and said, “The captain of the US soccer team wants to talk to you.” I thought she was joking. But I ended up getting invited to a training clinic, and I just fell in love with the community. A lot of these players had been playing on forearm crutches for years, and I had to learn how to use them and run backwards on them. But everyone was very welcoming.
EMILY: We started putting the team together at the beginning of this year. We had our first development camp at the end of May in California, and then we had a more recent one in New Jersey, and the players have really helped us with recruiting. They’ve reached out to their networks and have been flooding us with potential players. Social media has been a huge advantage as well.
What’s the learning curve like for amputee soccer? What are the skills that first-time players have to acquire?
EMILY: The big one would be crutch agility—sprinting, cutting, basic movement patterns, and the ability to feel comfortable in those movements. All the players have different experience and comfort level with crutches. Some players use their prosthetic device 90 percent of the time [in their day-to-day lives], but others use forearm crutches for a majority of the day, so you’ll see that difference in their comfort level. They feel more comfortable on crutches and making those movement patterns, and their upper-body endurance and stamina are improved as well. You need to develop those things to be successful in the game.
NICO: Running on crutches can be imposing, particularly for below-knee amputees. A lot of people feel unstable at first. It’s not always easy to make the leap.
KATIE: Our [regional] team played against some able-bodied players from the Columbus Crew, and they played on the forearm crutches and they were worn out after 20 minutes. No other sport is played on forearm crutches, at least none that I can think of. So I think it’s really cool that we’re given that opportunity to stand out.
If somebody wants to try the game but they don’t own a pair of forearm crutches, do the regional amputee soccer teams have loaners available?
NICO: The national association is budgeting for that. And there are some lower-priced pairs available that people can use at first, to see how they like the game. But if that’s not an option, you can play on standard crutches. As far as I’m concerned, just show up in your prosthesis and you can play on that. We just want to get people involved in the community.
What about ball-handling and shooting? I would think those skills take a lot of work.
EMILY: Ball-handling and ball skills are another thing to learn, but once you’ve got the crutch movement down, those come pretty naturally with time and a little bit of instruction. But another thing we have been spending a lot of time on is soccer IQ. Some of our players have never really played soccer before at an organized level. It’s been great for our team to be able to watch the World Cup and have women’s soccer on TV nonstop for the last few weeks. Our group chat has blown up. They’re really invested, and they’re taking it by the reins.
NICO: I’m bummed that I can’t be in that group chat, because it seems like this team is having so much fun. They’re making history for our sport.
KATIE: We talk to each other every day. We pose questions to each other, and we try to hold each other accountable as much as we can. Earlier today I was practicing my shooting, and my roommate videotaped me and I posted that workout. And then we’ll give feedback. Because we are representing the United States of America, and it’s an honor to do that. So we need to make sure that we’re taking it seriously.
What expectations do you have for this first outing against the Polish women’s team? Do you know much about them?
KATIE: Obviously we want to win. I’m a very competitive person. So I’ve been following them on Instagram and trying to sneakily get some film. But it’s really more about pushing the sport and spreading the word about amputee soccer. Hopefully our match will bring more attention and get more people involved and help more teams develop.
EMILY: We want to show a female presence and show that women can do this, too. Because for a lot of people, they’ll feel more comfortable trying something new if they’ve seen someone who resembles them doing it. We want women to know that if you’re a new amputee, you can come on out and play. If you’re a mom with two kids, you can come on out. If you don’t have any previous sport experience at all, but you want to try a team sport, come on out. We’re really focused on making it visible and show that this game is for everybody.
NICO: Amputee soccer has been coed since its founding [the US roster at last year’s Amputee World Cup included one woman], but women’s amputee soccer is still in its infancy right now. Internationally, the organizing bodies [for amputee soccer] haven’t put a lot of resources into building the women’s game and presenting it, so we want to be on the front edge of that and make sure that women have the same opportunities as the able-bodied women. Poland is one of the leading countries in organizing amputee soccer, so they’ll probably pull out all the stops to promote the women’s match.
After the trip to Poland, what comes next?
NICO: The American Amputee Soccer Association has officially scheduled the first ever national championships for October 27-29 in Columbus, Ohio. All of the regional teams are training for this tournament, which will include four to six teams in a round-robin format, with a final match to be held on Sunday, October 29. For the first time ever, the US will crown a national champion of amputee soccer.
Spectators and prospective players are more than welcome to join us for that historic weekend. And beyond that, we want to give people ongoing opportunities to play. So we’re really trying to grow the regional programs and make sure folks have an opportunity to play on a weekly or monthly basis and become part of the community. In my own personal journey with this sport, the social engagement is what really stands out. I’ve seen it help a lot of people come to terms with their disability and accept it. I’ve seen people take that leap into the community and get back a part of themselves that they thought they had lost. Team sports are one of the best ways to do that.